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June 27, 2016
BIE Book Excerpt: What Project Based Learning is Not

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

The following is an excerpt from chapter 4, “Designing a Project,” in Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, co-published in May 2015 by BIE and ASCD.

When you’re designing a project, keep in mind that Project Based Learning is not the same as “doing a project.” Here are some of the many examples of assignments or activities that are sometimes called “projects” that, although they may have a legitimate place in the classroom, are not PBL:

  • “Dessert” projects. At or near the end of a traditionally taught unit of instruction, a teacher sometimes serves up a dessert project to students, almost as if it were a reward for slogging through the material. These projects typically involve making something tangible: a model of the Egyptian pyramids, a video trailer about a novel, a tessellations art poster, a diorama of an Indian village, a board game about human physiology and health, a robot assembled by following directions from a kit. Dessert projects are typically seen as fun; the goal is not to assess student learning, but to provide a “hands-on” experience.
  • “Side dish” projects. This kind of project is similar to a dessert project but occurs during a traditionally taught unit, or outside the bounds of units altogether. Students might be asked to do something at home: design and conduct a science experiment, create a family tree, observe the moon and record data, or pretend to invest money in the stock market. The teacher might ask students to choose a topic and conduct research, then (usually) present it to the class, to provide an “extension” what is being covered in the class. Think of students making a tri-fold display or a PowerPoint presentation about a famous inventor, an aspect of life in Shakespeare’s England, an endangered species, or a country in South America. Or students might be asked to do something at home: design and conduct a science experiment; create a family tree; observe the moon and record data; pretend to invest money in the stock market. The goals are similar to those of a dessert project, but with more emphasis on giving students a chance to study a topic in depth, with some degree of choice.
  • “Buffet” projects. Some teachers design units in which students experience a number of varied activities, most of which are hands-on and fun as well as educational. The activities are united by a common theme, time, or place. Some of the activities may be called projects, and students sometimes get to choose which ones they do or what topics to pursue – much as they’d choose food items at a buffet dinner, except all the choices are desserts or side dishes! These “buffet” projects are often very impressive in their complexity and student engagement level. For example, imagine a 7th grade history unit about China. In addition to learning through lectures, textbooks, worksheets, and videos, students create maps of Marco Polo’s journey and Genghis Khan’s empire, make illustrated timeline posters, write and perform skits about Chinese culture, learn to paint Chinese characters, play traditional Chinese games, and learn to cook Chinese food. Similar units are found in the early elementary grades, perhaps with themes like “insects,” “cultures,” or “our community.” The goals of buffet projects are similar to those of dessert or side dish projects: engage students and enrich the basic content of the unit.
  • End-of-unit performance assessments or applied learning tasks. Teachers sometimes ask students to demonstrate what they have learned as the culmination of a unit and call the effort a “project.” It could be an individual or group task, and it could take many forms. Students might solve a problem to solve or answer a question through a written product or a presentation; design and create a tangible object or a performance; or conduct a scientific investigation. The goal of such projects is mainly to assess student learning, and sometimes to allow students to experience a hands-on, enjoyable activity.

Why are the above examples not Project Based Learning? Because they are not the main course. They are not used as the method of instruction in the regular classroom or school program. They are not the primary vehicle for addressing content standards. They do not replace a traditional unit or act as a major part of a unit, but are supplemental to traditional units – or even completely separate from what happens in the regular academic course or classroom. See Figure 4.1 for a comparison of the key features of “doing projects” vs. Project Based Learning:

Note: I would now add “projects” done during “Genius Hours” or “Maker Spaces” in schools to the list of examples of side dish projects. They’re great for what they are, but they typically do not meet the criteria for PBL.


Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning is a part of BIE's summer sale.  The book can be purchased at


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